Free As The Air

By Gerry Blackwell

December 01, 2003

An Austin TX group is helping build a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots -- free to users anyway -- to promote economic and community development.

The Wi-Fi freenet movement has taken a new twist in Austin Texas (which just happens to be home to Wi-Fi hotspot pioneer Wayport).

The Austin Wireless City Project (AWCP) is helping local businesses -- restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores -- and community groups set up free Wi-Fi hotspots. The AWCP has a dozen hotspots up and running, with plans to add almost 50 more in the next six to nine months.

It has also signed up over 800 registered users -- for free -- and expects that number to grow to more than 3,000 by end of year.

The freenet is coming up from the underground, into the light of day, and despite AWCP organizers' protestations that free sites can co-exist with for-fee sites, the project is a pointed challenge to those seeking to make a business of Wi-Fi hotspots -- like Wayport.

The project was launched five months ago by a loose-knit group headed by Richard Mackinnon, also co-founder of Less Networks, an Austin-based firm dedicated to the notion of free Wi-Fi. It's not clear how Less Networks will earn revenue, but it has built the server software that Austin's free-hotspot operators use.

Another key player is Jon Lebkowsky, principal in Polycot Consulting L.L.C., an Austin computer consulting firm. The AWCP is also supported by Austin Free-Net, among other local organizations and companies.

The project team started off with the idea of being nothing more than a provider of information to businesses and groups wanting to set up free Wi-Fi hotspots. It quickly progressed to actually implementing the hotspots and even soliciting free or cheap hardware for operators.

"It's all volunteer-run and non-profit," Lebkowsky says. "We have hotspotters who do the actual technology installations, walkers who go out and talk to prospective hotspot operators about setting up sites, and caretakers who make sure we have network availability. They're on call to fix things if there are problems."

The AWCP has about 20 volunteers working on the project. They make it relatively painless for businesses to become hotspot operators. The project negotiated donations of free hotspot servers from a company that manages recycling of old hardware for Dell, another Austin-area company. It also sources free access points or negotiates discounts.

As Lebkowsky says, though, "Nothing is free. There's always somebody who has to pay."

It's typically the site owner who undertakes the single biggest expense -- the ongoing cost of a broadband connection to the Internet. That can vary from as little as $28 to as much as $80 a month, says Mackinnon.

Lebkowsky says no broadband service provider has offered any objection to subscribers using its service to offer free Wi-Fi access yet. He doubts any will since they're getting business from the AWCP that they wouldn't get otherwise. If big providers did start to clamp down on businesses offering free Wi-Fi access, he speculates, smaller providers would step into the breach and offer no-strings-attached service.

Why do the coffee shops and restaurants and bookstores do it?

"It becomes an amenity," Lebkowsky suggests. "Early on, when you have only a few stores doing it, it differentiate them from the stores that are not doing it. As it catches on, as it gets to the point that most are doing it, the others will be left out if they don't too."

The notion of Wi-Fi access as an amenity is not new, of course. Some hoteliers believe it will become that in their industry before long, though currently more hotels charge for service than not.

Schlotszky's, an Austin chain of deli restaurants, has been giving Wi-Fi access away in its stores for several months. It even offers the free loan of a computer.

"We receive incredible heartfelt thank yous from customers for making free Wi-Fi available," says Schlotszky's director of communications Monica Landers, "and they reward us with their business."

Schlotszky's supports AWCP but its initiative is completely separate, Landers notes.

Austin Unleashed, a local WLAN systems integrator that also helps businesses set up Wi-Fi hotspots, claims at its Web site that some coffee shops reported 30-percent increases in business after installing a hotspot.

Is it the right kind of business, though? Some stores may worry about customers who come in to take advantage of the Wi-Fi access service and then sit for hours nursing a $2 cup of coffee.

"This is not a new problem," Mackinnon points out in an e-mail exchange. "Coffee shops have had to deal with folks camping out with books, newspapers and even laptops for a long time before hotspots came along."

He believes businesses should deal with campers in the ways they always have, without resorting to electronic timers and computerized warning messages. However, AWCP will experiment with some options to give venues control over session length.

If providing free Wi-Fi hotspot service makes such good business sense for Schlotszky's and the independent coffee shops, book stores and restaurants in the AWCP project, why then are companies like Starbucks -- to name only the most prominent -- still charging for it?

That Starbucks' Wi-Fi hotspot partner T-Mobile reduced rates on the service earlier this year suggests that customers aren't as keen on paying for Wi-Fi access as everybody thought they would be. Yet Starbucks and T-Mobile are still charging from $10 a day to $30 a month for the service.

In Austin, at least, there is something more behind the push for free Wi-Fi, Lebkowsky says.

With over 80 companies in the area involved in the wireless industry, the community would like to promote itself as a wireless hotbed. The AWCP, on a purely unofficial basis, is about economic and community development, he says.

"If you're going to be a major part of the wireless sector, people should be able to expect pervasive wireless access."

He also notes that Austin is "a very creative community" with a strong sense of sharing and of alternative approaches to business. Less Networks and Polycot are both explicitly setting out to test new, more community-oriented business models.

What are the implications of free Wi-Fi access for those trying to make a business out of it, though?

"What are the implications of making highways free?" Lebkowsky counters. "Wireless is infrastructure. I believe it should be either very cheap or free."

He first suggests that providing access isn't in any case the best business opportunity in Wi-Fi. With the kind of critical mass that free public access could generate, content provision or building Wi-Fi appliances -- phones perhaps -- might be better opportunities, he suggests.

That said, Lebkowsky insists that progressive hotspot companies -- he cites Wayport as an example -- see that free and for-fee sites can co-exist. Enterprise customers will still want an "industrial strength" hotspot service with quality of service assurances.

"That's different," he says. "There are access providers that will do well there."

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